By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Michael Johns picked up the phone in the Charlotte Stone Crabs’ dugout during the second inning of Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Bradenton Marauders.
At the other end of Johns’ call was Stone Crabs reliever Bryan Bonnell in the bullpen.
“Get (Taylor) Hawkins up,” Johns instructed Bonnell.
At the time, starting pitcher Michael Velasquez was in the middle of a four-hit, three-run inning. Velasquez was a heavy 41 pitches into his outing, and appeared to be headed for a short day.
“If you eliminate just a couple of innings for him this season, he’s thrown the ball really well,” Johns said of Velasquez. “He’s got to be able to control the inning and get out of there with just one run. It seems like one big inning every outing is his Achilles heel.”
As it turned out, Hawkins wouldn’t be needed until the seventh inning, as Velasquez buckled down after the rough second, allowing just one more run, and two more hits.
“I minimized my pitches (after the second inning),” Velasquez said. “I left a couple of balls up, and I told myself I have to slow the game down. If you leave them up, they get hit.”
Velasquez (0-3) and the Stone Crabs were over-matched by Bradenton pitcher Mitch Keller. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ No. 3 overall prospect had a career-high nine strikeouts over seven innings, allowing no runs on five hits and a walk.
Keller was perfect through three innings until a leadoff single in the fourth for Jake Cronenworth broke up the no-hit bid. The hit extended his hitting streak to 24 games, which ties Cronenworth with Francisco Leandro of the 2005 Visalia Oaks (former Advanced-A affiliate) for the third-best hit streak in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization.
Cronenworth, who served as the designated hitter – according to him – for just the second time in his career, had to figure a way to stay loose between at-bats.
“It’s definitely different,” Cronenworth said of being a DH. “I just grab a bat, and take phantom (at-bats) off our own pitcher. It’s just about keeping a good mindset and staying loose.”
Charlotte wasn’t able to scratch any runs until the eighth inning against Bradenton reliever Bret Helton. The Stone Crabs got to Helton Helton for both their runs when Cronenworth and Moreno led off the eighth with a pair of singles.
With Moreno on third after Cronenworth already had scored, Ryan Boldt blasted a pitch that appeared headed for the seats, but winds clocked at 17 mph from right to left killed the ball’s momentum and it fell for a sacrifice fly.
Sunday was the final game of a four-loss, six-game homestand. Charlotte hits the road today for 10 games before returning to Charlotte Sports Park on May 11 for a three-game series with Fort Myers.
The lengthy road trip is something Johns says he enjoys.
“I don’t like the three-game road trips and then coming back for three,” Johns said. “If we’re going on the road, let’s go on the road. I think it brings the club together.
“It’s going to be good for us. You get to the field later. You get to sleep later. There’s a lot more rest involved. There’s a lot less work. It builds team chemistry for sure.”
The Stone Crabs will face Lakeland for four games before heading to Tampa for three and Clearwater to close out the trip.